By Lestey Gist, The Gist of Freedom
On March 31, 1870, only one month after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, Thomas Mundy Peterson (1824–1904) became the first African-American to vote under the 15th Amendment, blacks were voting in elections prior to the passage; if they were able to afford to pay the poll tax, or meet the voting requirements. Whites were also subjected to the poll tax and property requirements.
Thomas Mundy Peterson also became the first black man to hold an elected office. He became a delegate to the republican convention. As a registered voter, he was the first black man to serve on a jury. Citizens raised money to purchase a medal. It was given to Peterson, naming him the “First Black Negro Voter,” during a Memorial celebration in 1884.
March 31st Memorial Day, originally (The Black Holiday Known as Decoration Day) is considered Thomas Mundy Peterson Day in New Jersey, celebrated in honor of his being the first African-American to vote.
Thomas Mundy Peterson worked as a custodian at School No. 1. That same school was named after him in 1989. An interview with Peterson showed who encouraged him to vote, (Abolitionists Marcus & Rebecca were the attorneys who worked hard but unsuccessfully for John Brown’s acquittal)
“…and did not think of voting until [ Marcus ] came out to the stable where I was attending to the horses and advised me to go to the polls and exercise a citizen’s privilege.” Peterson also revealed his vote in this election, “As I advanced to the polls one man offered me a ticket bearing the words “revised charter” and another one marked, “no charter.” I thought I would not vote to give up our charter after holding it so long: so I chose a revised charter ballot.”
In the wake of the defeat of the Confederate States of America, the United States instituted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The first African-American to take advantage of the new right to vote was Thomas Mundy Peterson. Peterson cast his historic vote on March 31, 1870, after a prompt from abolitionists Marcus and Rebecca Spring The iconic vote was cast in a local election in Perth Amboy, New Jersey for the town’s charter. Gary Sullivan of the News Tribune stated, “Exercising his right to vote in a local election on March 31, 1870. Peterson became the first black man in the United States to cast a ballot. The amendment had been ratified on February 3, 1870, and within just two months the Fifteenth Amendment was put to use.
The citizens of Perth Amboy, New Jersey later awarded Thomas Mundy Peterson a medallion in 1884. The medallion had the face of Abraham Lincoln engraved on one side. While the side opposite to that the medallion reads “presented by citizens of Perth Amboy N.J. to Thomas Peterson the first colored voter in the U.S. under the provisions of the 15th Amendment at an election held in that city March 13, 1870.”
These Reconstruction Amendments and The Emancipation Proclamation freed all African-Americans in the Confederate States while the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship of the United States. After the end of the war, the Fifteenth Amendment gave every citizen of the United States the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous servitude.